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Zaha Hadid, Dear Friend

United Kingdom Architecture News - Sep 23, 2016 - 18:55   22250 views

Zaha Hadid, Dear Friend


World Architecture Community Founder and President Prof. Dr. Suha Özkan, Hon F AIA, gives a personal tribute for Architect Dame Zaha Hadid (1950-2016). In his personal article, Suha Özkan explains his sincere friendship with the 'Queen of the Curve' Zaha Hadid and narrates some memorable traces of her professional career. 


“I started out trying to create buildings that would sparkle like isolated jewels; now I want them to connect, to form a new kind of landscape, to flow together with contemporary cities and the lives of their people.”

- Zaha Hadid


Text by Prof. Dr. Suha Özkan, Hon F AIA

The only habit she couldn’t quit in her relationship with people was her Middle Eastern passion, and her name-calling. She used to call me ‘Oz’ for Özkan. When official, it would become ‘Doctor Oz’. She would use ‘Oz’ mostly in imperative mood: “Oz, do this! Oz, give me that!” So much that there were times I asked to myself “Does she know my real name?” For instance I knew she called Hani Rashid ‘honey bunny’, and she had another name for Frank Gehry. Unfortunately, now neither I can tell you whether she knows my real name nor can you.

I discovered her at the Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture’s exhibition of senior projects. A student of mine graduated from the Middle East Technical University, doing his Phd in the UK, who knows my passion for futurist solutions noted “When you go the London, go to the AA’s project exhibition. There is an Iraqi girl that you will absolutely find interesting.” I had just started working for the Aga Khan Prize during those years. To observe the Third World architecture, and detect new talents, and provide them with opportunities was not only my job description, but also my objective. I found the project.

Really, the project was a mix of solutions from deconstruction originated from the Russian constructivists shattering attitude, to the integrality of the space capsule. I was hearing this name for the first time: Zaha Hadid

When I went back to Geneva, I remember telling Egyptian historian Said Zulfiqar, the then general secretary of the Aga Khan Architecture prize, “There is an amazing Iraqi talent at the AA. A woman! She’s splendid. We need to benefit from her in some way. Her name is Zaha Hadid.” Said, with his endless giggle said “Ah... I know her. Her brothers were at the same college with me at Cambridge, very handsome boys. Zaha was a thin-legged skinny girl. Is she an architect now? As far as I know, she was studying mathematics at AUB (American University Beirut)”. I didn’t know their common past, and refrained to ask. In the following years, I understood that there was no problem between them. Yet, the Arabian prejudice had reigned, and we had missed including Zaha at the Aga Khan Awards. Zaha was out everywhere especially as a painter. Until the visionary employer Rolf Fehlbaum assigned her first project of Vitra Fire station, she remained on the agenda of competitions, and debate.

Zaha continued her professional career at the AA. Taking over the management of the AA when I was studying, and elevating the school in rank by saving it from shutting down, Alvin Boyarsky was always in good support of Zaha. 

For the Hong Kong Heights Competition welcoming Zaha in the architectural world with big debate, he allocated her the Barrel Vault space behind the small school made up of three terrace houses in central London as a painting studio. With his distinct wittiness he self-criticized for his generous support: “All of the school’s resources are now redirected to one being”. In the period before Zaha, when movements like Postmodernism, and Classicism were storming through, AA was also blown away with that wind. When I met with Alvin at my school where I stopped by quite often, I asked him “What’s happening in Archigram’s nest?” With his natural humor he replied: “We have moved quite ahead at AA. We have yet come to the 19th century.” Not more than 10 years later, under Peter Crook’s guard, and Alvin Boyarsky’s support just like in the Archigram case, Zaha moved, first her school, then the whole architecture to the 21st century almost by herself.

Although the point of origin of the style to be called Jetsons after Zaha, was associated with the Hong Kong Heights competition, in fact, buildings looking like space capsules were designed long ago. Zaha resisted. Quite hard. She fought with the ignorant, underrating women and Arabs, presenting these attributes as design criteria, having no other virtue – if it’s a virtue – than seed history. She went to court when she won the Cardiff Opera project yet those who did everything in order not to build her work openly announced: “Well obviously, we will not consign such an important prestige building to an Iraqi woman.” She won. She glorified both her and women’s pride, and her finances. Her success was a great lesson for the racist discriminatory insolent type.

In 1996, Princeton alum, urban planner, Queen of Jordan Noor (Lisa Najeeb Halaby) was closely interested in Zaha Hadid, and her success, and asked her to do a speech in Amman. With the support of Suha Shoman, a close friend, and founding owner of the Darat al Funun (Art House), we decided that the speech was to take place in a natural amphitheater with Darat’s antique ruins, situated on a hill in the city center. We were going to come from Doha with Zaha. Rather, I was going to bring her there. Because when in 1992, she was in the jury of the Samarkand Urban Renewal Competition, she was seen at the Moscow Airport but had not come to Samarkand. Hence to me she was previously convicted. Although it was a short flight, it wasn’t easy to make her come to Amman from Doha. 

She had asked about the tiniest details, and tried every opportunity to cancel going to Amman. Her sweet smile was giving her away following each complaint. She liked me, and she was obviously trying to annoy me. She was testing my anger limits. But she couldn’t succeed. She later found out my perseverance and patience. I had almost locked myself on her. When she was asking: “what, how?” and I was responding: “You are the guest of his Majesty, you are the best of all” she would giggle, and although she did not take a sip from the tasteless coffee of Doha Flight Terminal, she did not complain.

We boarded on the plane at last. She wasn’t happy with the second row assigned to us. With her finger she insisted: “first row, first seat”. We had a rest in Manama. During that break, I kindly asked the flight attendants, and the gentle people on the first row - or shall I say I gently begged them - and somehow arranged to persuade them using her fame and significance as an architect. I am in no doubt that they felt my despair, and gave us their seats. Zaha fell asleep as soon as the plane took off. She woke up when we landed in Amman. When she woke up, I asked her: “Zaha, you didn’t even stay awake to enjoy your seat”, and she replied with a naughty smile; I felt relieved. Her smile originating from her spaced front teeth spreading to her whole face has remained one of my favorite impressions of her. While doing this, one always felt her hidden sense of humor, and self-confidence. When I told her that the gapped front teeth were perceived as good luck in Anatolia, she replied back “Yes, I am very lucky” without even questioning.

The conference at Darat al Funun was spectacular. Hundreds of architects, students, and art lovers had filled the space up, those who couldn’t find a place had perched on the trees. That scenery was worrying due to the risk of falling, on the other side, it had us say: ”Here’s the love of architecture, and the celebration of success”. Zaha had just won a couple competitions, and she had two little buildings, one of them under construction. Both of them were in Basel. Like in most of her speeches I had witnessed, she solely spoke about herself. Just like the solutions she suggested, her inspiration sources were also all from herself. The only person she mentioned was the constructivist painter Kazimir Malevich. Following a speech on ‘pleasure of space’ established on bright new expressions, during the Q&A session, a young sympathetic architect, after a couple statements of admiration, and appreciation, asked: “You had spoken at our university in the US. It was close to a project due date and I was very sleepy. So I came; I fell asleep, and missed your presentation. Do you owe this powerful and firm attitude to being a woman?” Zaha replied: “Should I wonder at you because you came to my speech, and you fell asleep?” The room exploded with laughter. The answer she gave to the following question became a much-cherished Zaha Hadid saying: “I’m an architect, not just a woman architect.”

Just like Rem Koolhaas said: “Zaha was a beautiful woman. Whenever she would come into a room, an unknown pleasant scent would fill up the room.” I used to think this scent was not coming from a perfume but from her aura. I have a specific interest hence a strong memory for scents. Yet this scent smelled like nothing I knew. She really always smelled beautifully. People, consciously or not, always wanted to remain close to her. When she would come into a room, the spiritual space would gain a new identity with her smile, and the nasal space with her scent. 

Another indicator of her womanhood was her attire. I haven’t witnesses her wearing the same thing twice. When an international manager, remained a peasant, had a cheap witty criticism on her weight and inconsiderately told me: “Tell a tentmaker to sew a dress for your sister”, I had replied amongst the sullen face and beetle brows of the surrounding: “She has a tentmaker: name is Issey Miyake.” Following a short silence, we heard giggles, and the manager who made the joke left the place at once. Whether designed by Miyake or by herself, each of her dresses definitely had a design message. During juries, and speeches, she would put upfront her clothing as an integrating message of architecture. During events, her clothes would reinforce her presence.

She celebrated her 60th birthday with a long table at the Burlington Arcade next to the Royal Academy. I couldn’t go but my wife and brother were there, and told me that the celebration was a presence rather than a feast. She celebrated her last birthday at the Kensington Palace. As a design and architecture celebrity, and at the same time Pritzker Prize President of the Jury Lord Peter Palumbo, was at Zaha’s side. She was bravely wearing a one-piece tannish dress I couldn’t figure out if made of synthetic or natural plush. She was so sweet that everyone wanted to give her a hug. During the feast, everyone had talked about her dress as much as about herself.

She was loyal to her friends and her fans. She would call them to whichever country she goes to, and spare them time whatever her agenda would be. She would take great pleasure in getting together with her dearest, and she would do anything to bring them together. I remember when a dear friend of hers had a traffic accident, and was taken into custody, she had called me and commanded: “Oz, what are you doing there? Take him out. Make yourself useful” whereas I hadn’t even heard about the news. I don’t even remember which corner of the world she was calling me from. She was worried. 

As managers of Pritzker Price and Aga Khan Prize, we sustained our strong bonds. The two significant architecture awards had different objectives and methods. We weren’t competing with each other. I was a close friend with John Carter Brown, one of her managers who deceased in 2002, and Bill Lacey who replaced him. The candidature process was openly held, but the managers had great responsibility and effect on the presentation to the jury. In 2004, I sent a friendly note to Bill Lacey. I reminded him that no female architects had won the Pritzker Prize since 1976, and that this gave the impression that this was a ‘Men’s Club’. I asked whether names like Denise Scott Brown, Gae Aulenti, Odile Decq, Francine Houben (Mecanoo), and Zaha Hadid could be considered. Bill’s answer was sweet and firm. In short, Bill said: “Suha, you know as well that like with all architecture prizes Pritzker is given to talent and success, not gender”. Still, the fact that Zaha Hadid had won the award that year was appreciated by all of us. The fact that Pritzker had evaluated a woman, an Iraqi woman, and most importantly a talent broadening infinite horizons had earned it further respect. There were two beautiful things about the ceremony in Saint Petersburg.

First, Zaha had mentioned someone other than Kazimir Malevich among the conferences I had witnessed. This person was no one other than Rem Koolhaas who had greatly contributed to her success. Second was getting to know Zaha’s brothers, whom I had heard about almost since twenty years. Born in 1937, Foulath Hadid, was one of the greatest leaders of the Iraqi democracy, and freedom movement, as a writer and thinker. It is said that, Foulath who is a Professor in the UK, was very effective for Zaha Hadid’s annex building at the Saint Anthony’s College in Oxford.

I was the President of the International Architects Union (UIA) in Istanbul in 2005. In general, two or three ‘famous’ architects are called to these congresses. I invited 30 celebrities to this event I called the budget to be ‘$1’. Eyebrows were raised. First the UIA Management, and many others tried to convince me that this act was unnecessary, and out of question. From among these celebrities, Hands Hollein couldn’t come because of a health issue, Rem Koolhaas because of acute news from the CCTV structure in Chine, and Dominique Perrault because he had forgotten. The remaining 27 architects were there. From the talks, which were all like celebrations, Zaha Hadid, and Tadao Ando’s were like ‘pop star concerts’. The audience filling the room was cheering up like crazy when Zaha was giving a speech, and the flashes blinded the eyes. I introduced her as “the most known architect of our world, after Sinan”. Zaha reminded me this statement with love, and with little nuance by saying: “According to Oz...”

For the 60th year celebrations of the Middle East Technical University, my dear friends Professor Canan Özgen, and Professor Feride Acar asked Zaha to give a conference. I tried hard to convince her. Although she took a long time by saying: “Oz, I don’t do that kind of stuff. But I’ll think about it for you”, she finally said, “Yes”. She later kept postponing. The reason was her acute bronchitis, which also caused her loss. The conference never took place.

Who wasn’t at the funeral in London’s Central Mosque? Peter Palumbo, Richard Rogers, Thom Mayne, Hani Rashid, Peter Cook, Mohsen Mostafavi, Ian Ritchi, and her partner Patrik Schumacher, along with all of her employees were some of the silent and sad people at the mosque. She came to the mosque in a soft white coffin looking almost like designed by Zaha Hadid herself. Born in Baghdad, raised in Beirut, living in London, RIBA Gold Medal holder, Pritzker prizewinner, Dame Zaha Hadid who is on the Queen of the UK’s pride list, flew away like a swan. She will be remembered in our memories as much as in her works. It is said that her current projects will take up to 10-15 years to be developed and built up. Let us wait.


For some reason she had said: 

“For many years I hated nature. As a student, I refused to put a plant anywhere – living plant that is. Dead plants were O.K.”

- Zaha Hadid



Original version of this article appeared in the very first issue of Architecture Unlimited (print only). Top image: Zaha Hadid, colleagues and with Suha Ozkan at the Architectural Association in 1983, courtesy of Architecture Unlimited.